Despite the absence of major league baseball from Washington for six years - or perhaps because of it - Washington-area residents express an overwhelming desire to have a team return to the nation's capital.
About one-third of those 16 years old or older in the city and its close-in suburbs could be expected to attend at least one game the first year a new team played here, according to their stated intentions as expressed in a scientific survey conducted by The Washington Post.
Many say they would attend far more than one game at RFK Stadium. In fact, stated support for a new team is so great that it can only be read as a measure of intent, not potential reality.
If fans turned out like they say they would, all attendance records would be shattered.
But other findings in the Post's survey appear to be more than just expressions of intent. Only one person in four does not appear to care whether or not a team returns; and only one in 100 is opposed to the return of a team.
All the rest say they are interested - either very interested or somewhat interested - in getting a baseball team in Washington.
The Metro subway system, with a stop two blocks from the stadium, could prove a boom for baseball attendance. Some two-thirds of those interviewed said they would use the subway to go to games, easing problems of access and parking that now irk a sizeable number of fans. (The possible impact of the subway on events at Kennedy Stadium is dealt with in another article in today's newspaper.)
More than any other sport, the survey suggests, baseball has both an extraordinarily wide general appeal and a large core of intense supporters in the Washington area. Seventy-two per cent of those surveyed said they had gone to at least one baseball game in the last 10 years - a figure surpassed only by professional football, and 4 per cent said they have gone to at least 100 baseball games, a figure equalled only by fans of horse racing.
Washington has been without a baseball team since 1971, when Bob Short, then owner of the Washington Senators, moved the club to what he considered the greener pastures of Arlington, Tex., between Dallas and Forth Worth.
In recent years, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn repeatedly has expressed a desire to bring a team to Washington and there have been efforts in Congress, led by Rep. B.F. Sisk (D-Calif.) to get a team here.
But while teams have moved to other cities, none has come to Washington despite the area's size, its high-income population, its reputation as being recession-proof. Several of the nation's leading department store chains have come to the area, recognizing it as a top market. Washington has become a center of the cultural arts since 1971 - but no baseball team has returned although one or two have come close.
The Post survey suggests that people in Washington are so baseball-hungry that, by more than a 20-to-1 margin, they would approve an arrangement in which another big-league team played some of its games here. In all 54 per cent said they would approve sharing a team, 14 per cent said they would approve it as a stopgap measure and 25 per cent said they were opposed to sharing a team.
An aide to Rep. Sisk, Tony Colho, interpreted the ready acceptance of a shared team as a sign that "people would prefer practically anything as opposed to nothing. It shows a high degree of interest in baseball," he said. "But we don't feel the nation's capital should be sold a bill of goods. It should be given the whole loaf, and we maintain that position."
The survey was aimed at gauging interest and support for baseball and other professional sports among those 16 years old and older living in the District of Columbia, Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, the city of Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia.
In all, more than 1,600 people were contacted at random in telephone interviews. About 35 per cent were not interviewed, however, because they said they had not gone to any professional sports contest in the last 10 years. Most of the survey's findings, therefore, apply to the segment of the community that has shown at least minimal support for professional sports.
Not every statistic gleaned from the survey, conducted during the last week in April, is one that will warm the heart of inveterate baseball fans. Baseball, for example, lagged far behind football and trailed basketball as well in the public's ranking of their most favored sports.
Football was listed by 45 per cent as their favorite sport, basketball by 16 per cent and baseball placed third among 12 different sports with 13 per cent. When aksed to list their three favorite sports, instead of just one, football was chosen by 82 per cent basketball by 60 per cent, and baseball by 44 per cent.
Much of the popularity of basketball may be traced to what only can be called basketball fever among young blacks, those between the ages of 16 and 25. Were that group left out of the tabulations, baseball would surpass basketball and be second in interest of football.
However, despite their preference for basketball as a favorite sport, young blacks as a group are among those who appear to be most likely to support a baseball team.
As might be expected, men showed a greater interest in the return of baseball than did women - but there were interesting wrinkles in the pattern.
Overall, 44 per cent of the men interviewed said they were very interested in getting a ball team, and the corresponding figure among women was 36 per cent. But among men, the keenest interest was expressed by the youngest in the survey, and among women it was just the reverse. In fact, the sharpest desire for a baseball team was expressed among women over 50, among whom six in 10 said they were very interested in the return of a team.
Kuhn conjectured that older women are fond of baseball in that it is a good sport for family outings, and noted than other studies have shown that housewives have become interested in baseball through watching it on TV or listening to it on radio while doing housework.
The survey shows a narrow but clear preference for a National League team, if whishes turned to reality and baseball were to come back. As expressed in terms of the number of games people said they would turn out for, the National League was favored over the American League by a 53-47 margin.
Kuhn said he was not surprised at that finding, and added that the tradition of having an American League team in D.C. "would produce support for an American League" team here.
Appraised of the post's findings, Short, reached in Minneapolis by telephone, said he was surprised the desire for the return of baseball "was not unanimous." Short said that "the fans are there, there's no question about that," but insisted that "other things are not there."
He complained, as he did when he pulled the Senators from Washington, that TV and radio stations would not pay enough to broadcast baseball games, thereby depriving him of revenue needed for a team to survive here.
He also said that it cost him $150,000 a year "for policemen to protect the people inside."
The Post survey evoked concern over crime in the stadium area from some 12 per cent of those interviewed, not nearly as high as the percentage complaining about parking fees or access to the stadium, and far below the numbers who lavished praise on the sports facility.
Informed that police statistics show the area around RFK Stadium to be low in crime, Short said, "That's just nonsense to let the police department tell you it's not a high crime area."
At the same time, Short, who no longer holds an interest in the Texas team, said he has been making efforts to buy a franchise and bring it to Washington, dependent on his getting an accpetable TV and radio contract.
Should that come to pass, it might change that fans' views of Short. At this moment he appears to be the Washington sports scene's No. 1 ogre, with no competition from anyone.